Tomas Rodriguez's music is at once imposing and beautifully plain, even in the silence between notes. Part of you wants to close your eyes and inhale, and the other part has no choice but to marvel at the immaculate, unbroken cadence of loose fingers on tight strings. Balancing the languages of melody and story, Rodriguez plays like he's having a conversation, each sound as deliberate as the words he uses to talk about music.
Amazing that such monstrous talent could spring from an old 45 of "Pop Goes the Weasel." It was the first record Rodriguez ever heard, and after memorizing it, he moved on to the NBC Nightly News theme and a collection of Beethoven's symphonies, all before he was 6 years old.
"At that point, my parents realized 'this kid's supposed to do something with music,'" Rodriguez said. Piano lessons did little to nurture his gifts, but Motown and rock n' roll tracks by The Temptations, Curtis Mayfield, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones became so entwined with his consciousness that instead of talking about the past in terms of days and seasons, Rodriguez remembers in songs.
"It was always the way I defined time. I can go back and tell you the first time I heard a certain song," he said. "Music is a tool of memory for me."
One such memory, one that changed his life, happened a year after Rodriguez and his family moved from New York to Idaho. It was 1979, and he heard a song on the radio that hit somewhere deep.
"Hey, Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand ... It was Jimi Hendrix. I hadn't heard it in 10 or 12 years, but I knew that song-remembered hearing it in the Lincoln Tunnel-and I listened to that tape all weekend," he said. "After that, it was over. Forget it. Something really changed for me at that point. I was determined to figure out what Jimi was doing on the guitar." Rodriguez's current style is worlds away in the lush rhythms of Africa and Cuba and the dense melodies of Spain and South America, but he insists the influence is there.
While pursuing a degree in philosphy and literature at Bard College in New York, Rodriguez let music be secondary, or as he says, "hidden." Then he was asked to accompany a singer from Harlem in a student show.
"I kind of tore it up," he chuckled. "No one knew who I was, and after that everyone knew who I was."
Even as his skills developed, Rodriguez had no real sense of cultural identity, an element that now characterizes his music. It took the guidance of a great Spanish cellist named Luis Garcia Renart and a broken amplifier to wake him up to his own heritage.
"[Garcia Renart] is responsible for my awakening; I just had to learn the techniques. Then my amp broke," Rodriguez said. "Someone loaned me a Spanish guitar, and I got into flamenco and learned the basics of Spanish classical. That's how it began-with a broken amp."
Rodriguez went on to study in Spain at the University of Salamanca and learned to speak the language. He began to understand and emulate morina, or the melancholic longing threaded throughout the regional shades of Spanish music.
"I had an affinity for the music, got into the feeling of it really easily. There was a blood connection, an innate understanding," Rodriguez said. From there, he began experimenting with everything from the indigenous Indian style to that of Africa, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela and Brazil, yet he doesn't write songs with a particular corner of the world in mind. "I write whatever the spirit gives. The hardest thing is showing up for the appointment," he said.
Many years later, Rodriguez is a career musician with an amazing repertoire. He has released two wonderful CDs, Guitarra de mi Alma and Dialogue, and gigs range from huge events at the Waldorf Astoria to engagements in exotic places like France and Egypt to regular demonstrations at the Brooklyn Public Library. He even plays weddings from time to time, remembering to be present and care about his music no matter where it's being played.
"If it doesn't move me it's not going to move anybody," he said, adding that projects like his current collaboration with African percussionist Hasan Bakr and teaching music to inner-city Latino kids feed the part of his soul that would like to just go through the motions sometimes. "Just to create something really positive that goes into peoples' hearts, not their heads-it's important now, that type of music," he said. "There's a lot of negativity out there, and I'm just trying to give a different message."
June 25, 6:30 p.m., FREE, Ann Morrison Park-Rodriguez plays with Vincent Miresse, Sally Tibbs and Kevin Kirk with Onomatopoeia as part of Hot Air, Cool Jazz.
June 26, 4-7 p.m., $25, Boise Yoga Center-Vinyasa yoga session followed by Miresse and Rodriguez.
July 1,3, FREE, Satchel's
For more information, visit www.tomasrodriguez.com.